We gather in the glorious Arts and Crafts surroundings of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Lowestoft, one of Suffolk’s most beautiful Catholic churches, on a summery April evening while the kittiwakes scream overhead. Merry Opera’s cast gradually file in, dressed in everyday clothes: twelve men and women from all walks of life, approaching the altar. Some look lost, others tense, thoughtful, anxious, disdainful, even angry: all seem deeply preoccupied with their private problems. The concept of this production is that each of them has been drawn into this church, and into the often troubling conversation of faith that is Messiah, by mysterious reasons we never actually discover. A harassed-looking man in a leather jacket (tenor Glen Tweedie) picks up a dog-eared score of Messiah from the altar steps, and begins to thumb through it, looking desperately perplexed and uncertain. Before he even began to sing, I could feel the tears starting into my eyes: the fear, the suspicion, and the desperate hope he conveyed created that perfect storm of spiritual turmoil which Messiah aims to address.
This ‘full staging’ of Messiah doesn’t put God himself on stage, but rather dramatises our contemporary engagement with God, faith and religion, with all the difficult questions and strange ironies that can pose for anyone living today. Faith in modern life is an unfashionable idea, and a fascinating problem for those who attempt it, throwing up condundrums poignantly explored in Jimmy McGovern’s extraordinarily sensitive, insightful television series Broken (BBC1, 2017); this production ignites a similar debate with its audience, though Ramster’s staging of Messiah has been around far longer. This is, in fact, its tenth tour since 2011, and it’s been seen by thousands of people, but it still feels groundbreakingly fresh and intimate. Director John Ramster’s insightful, often challenging reading of the oratorio, conveyed with the full dramatic force and musical directness of opera at its most raw, allows Handel’s arias to be sung as reflections, questions, meditations of faith, or even bewildered outcries against God by ordinary people. We do get an angel at one key moment (brilliantly equipped with a paper plate halo), but otherwise, our characters are unnamed and unexplained, their life story and need for spiritual comfort conveyed solely through each singer’s acting, and their approach (or reaction) to different parts of the text. We see the stumbling progress of faith; doubt stretching into tentative hope, only to be shaken by despair; moments of aggression and rivalry between the strangers tentatively evolving into friendship and respect; confidence and joy in redemption through grace overwhelming some, disgust and despair at man’s inadequacy defeating others.
Using a small cast of talented singers, Merry Opera takes Messiah back to its roots as a piece originally conceived for a small ensemble; and less is definitely more here. The combination of well-chosen church acoustics (Our Lady Star of the Sea was truly dazzling in this respect), and the cast’s clean, searing vocal power ensures a fabulous sound, while the dynamic physicality of the performance makes the score explode all around you, all the time: expect Handel’s music to come at you from every angle. With his daringly huge structured choruses, sitting inside the developing sound as it arcs over you from behind, beside, above and in front, blooming into being both musically and architecturally, is an unforgettably beautiful experience. Only productions like this, incorporating active movement and drama into singing, can achieve these superb effects: and I don’t know if I’ll ever want to sit through a ‘straight’ choral version again. Merry Opera made the most of every corner of Our Lady, Star of the Sea: it felt like the whole production had been designed specifically for that place, as singers whirled down the aisle, explored the sanctuary, and climbed the pulpit and the altar; but this tour moves seamlessly from space to space, using a wide range of different churches of all sizes, styles and denominations.
Conductor Richard Leach does a superb job of coordinating his often very mobile cast, not to mention his organist Charles Andrew, accompanying on Our Lady Star of the Sea’s historic Norman and Beard organ, still in pristine condition since its original installation in 1902. Among the finely balanced company, stunning sopranos Anna Sideris and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, charismatic countertenor Roderick Morris, evocative mezzo Gemma Morsley, tenderly effective tenor Alex Haigh and exceptionally accomplished baritones Felix Kemp and Christopher Faulkner stand out, but it’s ultimately an ensemble piece with strong execution across the board.
Handel’s Messiah is all too easily brushed off as one of those pieces we all know overly well – a cherished piece of choral glitz on which we tend to overdose at Christmas, and ignore the rest of the year. However, this reminds us how little we truly know it. There is so much more philosophical depth to Messiah than its rampaging Hallelujah Chorus and the heady cuteness of ‘For, Unto Us a Child is Born’; it is a story of darkness as well as joy, doubt as well as faith, despair as well as hope. Nick Drake’s brilliant play All the Angels (my review of that here) explored the tortured back story of librettist Charles Jennens, who wrote Messiah as a reaction to his own brother’s suicide, and subsequent exclusion from Christian burial; Jennens defiantly amasses texts from the King James Bible to prove to himself that redemption extends to everyone. There are still problematic passages: the Hallelujah Chorus itself, coming straight after a jubilant statement of religious war, is a tubthumping paean of victory which is, in fact, deeply uncomfortable to watch, and Ramster directly engages with this darker side of the piece, rendering it suddenly fascinating. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ follows on as a much saner, more inclusive statement of faith: refreshingly compassionate and inclusive. Every transition, from aria to chorus, throws new light on the piece as a whole; it’s a mesmerising watch. Merry Opera breathes new life into Messiah: see it if you possibly can.